OSWEGO — Federal, state and local officials gathered on Thursday to mark a new development in the process of designating a portion of Lake Ontario as a national marine sanctuary.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced the launch of a public comment period this week. The agency will accept comments by mail or online until July 31. Public hearings are planned in the four counties — Cayuga, Jefferson, Oswego and Wayne — adjacent to the proposed sanctuary.
The first of the hearings will be held from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Monday, June 10, at Fair Haven Fire Hall, 14447 Fair Haven Road, Sterling.
Oswego County's congressional delegation, U.S. Reps. Anthony Brindisi and John Katko, and representatives from the four counties that are part of the sanctuary proposal held a press conference Thursday at the H. Lee White Maritime Museum in Oswego to explain the next steps in finalizing the designation.
Oswego County Administrator Phil Church emphasized that it's been a collaborative effort. While it was an idea raised by Oswego County lawmakers, they partnered with leaders from Cayuga, Jefferson and Wayne counties to submit an application to establish the section of Lake Ontario as a national marine sanctuary.
Church noted how difficult it is to reach this phase. The Lake Ontario was one of two selected by NOAA for consideration. Since the national marine sanctuary program was created in 1972, there have been 14 sanctuaries designated across the U.S.
The existing sanctuaries include the Florida Keys off Florida and Monterey Bay off California's coast.
Katko, R-Camillus, believes the proposed sanctuary for Lake Ontario will build on some of the recent developments in Oswego. He mentioned the construction in the city and the push he's led to designate Fort Ontario as a national park.
Having the eastern end of the lake designated as a national marine sanctuary, he argued, could boost the economy and tourism.
"This gives Oswego a different vibe," Katko said.
Church highlighted a focal point of the sanctuary application — the nearly 70 shipwrecks either known or suspected to be within the proposed boundary. He dubbed it the "shipwreck sanctuary." There also could be as many as three military planes in the designated area.
The proposed sanctuary covers 1,700 square miles of the lake.
Brindisi, D-Utica, committed to working with local officials to ensure the process moves forward. He echoed Katko's remarks that they would provide assistance if more information is needed or if there are gaps in communication with NOAA.
The potential sanctuary, Brindisi said, is a "total win-win."
Church also sought to clarify what a national marine sanctuary would mean for anglers, boaters and others who use the lake for recreational purposes. The name of the designation, he said, implies that the section of the lake would be off limits. That won't be the case.
The goal of the sanctuary, he continued, is to promote access and understanding of the water body.
"This is all about the heritage," he said.
Church cautioned attendees that it's not a quick process. It could take at least two or three years before the national marine sanctuary is established.
Once the public comment period and hearings are completed, NOAA will prepare a draft sanctuary proposal. It will include potential boundaries and regulations for the proposed sanctuary. NOAA could form an advisory council to help with the drafting of the proposal.
NOAA will gather more feedback as it makes a final decision on whether to designate the area as a national marine sanctuary.
"We got a long way to go," he said.